For convenience, "Protestant" is used to refer to trinitarian communions that are neither Eastern Orthodox nor Roman Catholic. Among the larger communions, difficulty in accepting the Protestant label is encountered, notably among the Anglicans. Among Southern Baptists, some maintain that they are not Protestants. The Calvinists, the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Unitarians are the four most distinct types of Protestants which have developed throughout the history of Protestants, though many would question whether the non-Trinitarian doctrine of the Unitarians is orthodox Christian.
The Protestant Reformation started well before the 1500's; there have been many who tried to bring reform to the Church but it was not until Martin Luther and John Calvin that the Reformation took place. This is when many separated from the Church of Rome.
By 1540, two great types of the reform of religion in northern Europe had made themselves manifest. Luther had molded the one type. Calvin had molded or begun the molding of, the other. Luther was for retaining medieval doctrine, government, worship, many things - whatever seemed to him desirable and not forbidden in the Word of God. Calvin was for bringing the Church into conformity with the pattern shown in the Word. He would have the Church hold the faith taught in the Word, and govern itself according to these principles. He believed in the sufficiency of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, and would have had the Church conform in all aspects of Scripture teaching. Luther also believed in Sola Scriptura shared the same belief.
Those who embraced the separation were referred to as "Protestants." The name is actually a derivative to the verb "protestari" which means not simply "to protest" in the sense of "to raise an objection," but denotes a broader connotation meaning "to avow or witness or confess." Protestants believed they were professing the pure teachings of the early church, which had been viewed as obscured through medieval Catholicism. Protestants believe that the Christian Church truly began on the day of Pentecost, as mentioned in the second chapter of the book of Acts. Since Protestants believe that God indwells believers through the Holy Spirit, (Acts: 2) the Church first began its service to God on this day.
The papal monarchy and visible unity of Western Christendom were destroyed, and reconstruction of government and discipline became necessary. Four ways were open for the construction of an evangelical church polity.
- To retain the episcopal hierarchy, without the papacy, or to create a new one in its place. This was done in the Lutheran churches of Scandinavia, and in the Church of England, but in the closest connection with the state, and in subordination to it. In Scandinavia the succession was broken; in England the succession continued under the lead of Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, was interrupted under Queen Mary, and restored under Queen Elizabeth.
- To substitute a lay episcopate for the clerical episcopate ; in other words, to lodge the supreme ecclesiastical power in the hands of the civil magistrate, who appoints ministers, superintendents, and church counselors as executive officers. This was done in the Lutheran churches of Germany. The superintendents performed episcopal duties, but without constituting a distinct and separate grade of the ministry, and without the theory of the episcopal or apostolical succession. The Lutheran Church holds the Presbyterian doctrine of the parity of ministers.
- To organize a presbyterian polity on the basis of the parity of ministers, congregational lay-elders, and deacons, and a representative synodical government, with strict discipline, and a distinction between nominal and communicant membership. This was attempted developed by Calvin in Geneva, and carried out in the Reformed churches of France, Holland, Scotland, and the Presbyterian churches of North America.
- Congregational independency; i.e., the organization of self-governing congregations of true believers in free association with each other. It appeared in isolated attempts under Queen Elizabeth, and was successfully developed in the seventeenth century by the Independents in England, and the Congregationalists in New England.
All these forms of government admit of a union with the state (as in Europe), or a separation from the state (as in America). The German Reformation did not stimulate the duty of self-support, nor develop the faculty of self-government. It threw the church into the arms of the state. Union of church and state was the traditional system since the days of Constantine and Charlemagne, and was adhered to by all the Reformers. They had no idea of a separation; they even brought the two powers into closer relationship by increasing the authority of the state over the church. Separation of the two was barely mentioned by Luther, as a private opinion, we may say almost as a prophetic dream, but was soon abandoned as an impossibility.
Protestantism has been referred to as the recovery of New Testament Pauline theology. Arising from the Reformation were several "groups" liturgical and non-liturgical including the Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Independents, and Erastians (founded by the Dutch theologian Erasmus 1466-1536). In the 17th and 18th centuries, these churches further divided along theological lines and produced denominations including Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, and Church of the Brethren among others. Both Luther and Calvin recognized that with the reforms there would be many splits with in the church. Many of these denominations saw impressive growth during the First and Second Great Awakening movements.
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